On Being Poor and the MDGs

Wednesday, 7 October, 2009 - 12:39

In this article, Idah Makukule writes that unless all sectors of society commit to challenging inequality and eradicating poverty, the MDG goals will remain out of reach. She describes how that in Vosloorus the MDGs have no meaning, for them what is important is their lived reality of a daily struggle to meet their daily basic needs, while trying to survive with limited resources

The severity of poverty worldwide prompted 189 world leaders in 2000 at the United Nations Millennium Summit to make a promise about the eradication of poverty by the year 2015. These commitments became to be known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Now with six years to go until the MDGs deadline of 2015 and for South Africa five years (as we have identified 2014 – 20 years into our democracy – as our target), we need to assess whether sufficient progress has been made in reaching the goals. This narrative paints a bleak picture. However it is one that has to be told so that we can ensure that the MDGs are realised. We must ask the difficult questions so that they can be answered.

The reality is that in South Africans, while there has been progress in realising some of the MDGs there have been numerous challenges. News headlines have often highlighted food price hikes and price fixing. With 40% of the population living in poverty the ability to simply afford food is not within their grasp and hunger is becoming a daily problem for many.

The recent retrenchments - blamed on the world economic crisis - have thrown approximately another million people into crisis this year. This contributes to economic hardship, leaving millions vulnerable. Unemployment increases the challenges of eradicating hunger - without income, there is even less to spend on food. South Africa is a net importer of produce and although food prices are decreasing in developed countries they remain high in developing countries. This manifests itself with the majority of the population unable afford basic food items. This has been the case for many of the residents in Vosloorus on the East Rand of Gauteng, where Studies in Poverty and Inequality Institute (SPII) has been working for the last 18 months.

For many  in Vosloorus the MDGs do not have any meaning. What matters is their lived reality of a daily struggle to have their basic needs met while they try to survive with limited resources. The increase in the numbers of orphans and children who are vulnerable compounds the communities’ challenges. Orphanhood in Vosloorus is not a new AIDS–related issue. There have been several generations of orphans in Vosloorus which, I argue is a reflection of the intergenerational aspect of poverty and vulnerability.

However, the role of the HIV and AIDS pandemic has to be considered in relation to how it changes the structure of households. The death of a bread winner and ill health is sufficient to push vulnerable households into poverty, keep them in poverty traps or push them in to destitution. This has been the case for some of the households in Vosloorus. Within the sample of 40 households, 20% of the respondents have turned to destructive coping strategies such as having multiple sexual partners in order to be able to sustain the household. During our field work in the community one participant stated that in order to have her basic needs met, she had multiple partners, each of whom would fulfil a particular need eg, household or personal needs like the provision for mealie meal, meat, clothing or cellular phone airtime. It was also found that in some cases people were forced to compromise safe sexual practices by giving in to pressure to engage in unprotected sex under the coercive pull of promises of money. This illustrates the sometimes precarious coping strategies that are being adopted to meet basis needs.

Education has been highlighted as a way to equip individuals with the necessary skills to enter the job market. Findings from the survey we conducted indicate that while school attendance was fairly high, there is a persistent drop out rate of 15%. This is generally caused by a lack of funds (not just for fees, but transport, uniform, books and food), or teenage pregnancy. Although the education system appears to be in crisis, pupils have a great desire to attain education. However, the sad reality is that even with education large portions of school leavers will struggle to find work given the pre-existing high unemployment in the country.

The findings from our work in Vosloorus have demonstrated that poor and marginalised people are not always passive participants or mere victims of circumstantial poverty. Rather they are engaged in an ongoing struggle to use available resources to break the cycle of poverty. The principal elements of their daily struggles include taking part in small informal trading initiatives, albeit peripheral.

In the absence of paid work many household rely on social security grants which are used for various micro-enterprises and also to provide basic needs. The funds received from the grants are however eroded exponentially by food inflation. Within a household of five in which no member of the household has formal employment and the sole regular income is a child grant of R240 it is unlikely that basic needs will be met, let alone the costs of transportation to school, groceries and municipal services.

The MDGS have been criticised as being set too low and it has been argued that they have reduced the sense of urgency amongst states needed to address people’s needs. MDGS also are silent about the issue of wealth and the unsustainability of high inequalities in societies. If the scenario evident in Vosloorus is anything to go by, there remain serious obstacles towards South Africa’s ability to meeting the MDGs. What is necessary I believe, is that we need to work together as a society to challenge poverty and inequality if we are to make any tangible and long-lasting difference in the lives of the poor and marginalised.

Let us start doing this now and Stand Up and Take Action.

Idah Makukule a researcher at the Studies in Inequality and Poverty Institute (SPII). She can be contacted at idah@spii.org.za. Find out more about SPII’s work at www.spii.org.za

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